Throughout his life, Rousseau suffered from severe emotional distress, and feelings of deep inferiority and guilt. Rousseau’s actions and writings reflect his attempts to overcome this sense of inadequacy and to find a place in world that only seemed to reject him. His political philosophy influenced the development of the French Revolution, and his theories have had a great impact on education and literature.
Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland on June 28, 1712 and later died on July 2, 1778. He was the second of two sons born to Isaac and Suzanne Bernard Rousseau. Tragically, his mother died while giving birth, and along with this his father blamed him for her death, leaving Rousseau with unbearable guilt. As a boy, he read Plutarch’s Lives and contemporary novels, but did not receive much formal schooling. At the age of thirteen Rousseau became and engraver’s apprentice. In 1728, he ran away from Geneva saying that he was forced to endue cruel punishment from his master. Around the age of seventeen he was taken in by a priest that introduced him to Madame Louise de Warens, to whom he was sent for conversion and baptism into the Roman Catholic religion. However, she soon became his mistress in an on and off relationship that lasted until 1736 due to its increasing agony.
Rousseau was often in trouble for fighting and stealing. As a result of living this way, he fled to Paris in 1741 seeking fame. He composed an opera called Les Muses galantes, which led to a correspondence with Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and other French philosophers, some of whom were engaged in producing the Encyclopedia. Rousseau contributed several pieces on music to this project. But, it was not until he read about an essay contest being administered by the Academy of Dijon in 1749 that he found his true subject; to oppose society as it then existed and point out new paths for it to follow. The question for the contest asked whether the restoration of the arts and sciences has had the effect of purifying or corrupting morals. He submitted a winning essay entitled “Discourse on the Sciences and Arts.” In this essay Rousseau stated:
virtue is found “engraved on the heart” of every person. That no special knowledge is necessary, so the advance of knowledge does nothing to improve morals. However, the reverse is true. One is more likely to find virtue in the simple laborer than in the philosopher or artist. The problem is that when a society achieves the leisure to pursue knowledge in art and philosophy, its members become caught up in appearances and illusion. The need to appear correct becomes more important than the truth, and people are led away from the honesty that characterizes more primitive, natural sciences.
This essay earned him considerable fame, but he reacted against it. It was as though the fame Rousseau had been seeking was too much for him to mentally handle. His mental health was a matter of some concern for the rest of his life. There were often periods when he found it difficult to be in the company of others.
At around the time of the publication of his famous, very influential discourses on inequality and political economy, Rousseau also began to fall out with Diderot and the Ecyclopedists. Shortly after this, the Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg offered him a house on their estate at Montmorency. Within the next four years of seclusion in Montmorency, Rousseau produced three major works. The first being The New Heloise (1767), one of the most widely read novels of his day.
The second being The Social Contract (April 1762), one of the most influential books on political theory. The first line of the book states, “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” The social contract Rousseau explores in the book involves people recognizing a collective “general will”. This general will representing the common good or public interest, which each individual has a hand in making – even if it goes against their private of personal interests. For example, suppose we have a large income, we might support a political party that proposes to tax us heavily because we can see the benefit that this taxation can bring to all. To this extend, Rousseau believed that the good individual, or citizen, should not put their private ambition first. He also believed this way of living could promote liberty and equality. But, if “general will” was put over the individual or “particular” will, then there needs to be safeguards against the exploitation of individuals and minorities. Rousseau’s belief in liberty, equality, and fraternity may go some way in counteracting the dangers of the general will, but others have twisted the notion so that the majority rules the minority. It just depends who has the power to define or interpret the general will, which is normally the majority.
And the third book he wrote being Emile (May1762), a classic statement of education. The “heretical” discussion of religion in Emile caused Rousseau problems with the Church of France. In this book, he states:
the first requirement of the education of the true individual is a rural setting. There, a child will be free from the influence of the “arbitrary” will of socialized adults. Rather than learning to conform to the whims of society, the child learns to test him or herself against the physical necessity of nature. In this way the limits of natural freedom are discovered by direct experience.
Rousseau also felt that education should be progressive. That the child’s education be a prolonged experience of things rather than an introduction to ideas. The book was burned in a number of places. Within a month Rousseau had to leave France for Switzerland. He was unable to return to Geneva because his citizenship was revoked as a result of the commotion of the book, Emile. In 1766 he went to England at the invitation of David Hume. Later he fell out with Hume, accusing him of disloyalty and displaying all the signs of paranoia. In 1767 he returned to France under a false name, Renou, even though he had to wait until 1770 to return officially. A condition on his return was his agreement not to publish his work. However, he still continued to write. Rousseau completed his autobiography titled Confessions and began to privately read it to others until the police banned him from doing so in 1771. The book was eventually published after his death.
Before Rousseau’s death in July of 1778, he returned to copying music to make a living. He also wrote many more books, one of which was Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, Dialogues. Also among those were the ten, classic, meditations of Reveries of the Solitary Walker. With these final works, Rousseau became know as one of the first “Romantic” writers.
After learning of Rousseau’s philosophies, I agree with almost everything that he believes.When looking at the Social Contract, I believe he is one hundred percent correct with saying that people have a part in making the general will and should not let private or personal interest get in the way. Now when it comes to his views on education, I have to slightly disagree with him. I don’t believe children should be left to entirely teach themselves. They need supervision from the adults that have been through life and that have knowledge to pass on.